Pharmaceuticals in the environment in Italy: Causes, occurrence, effects and control

Ettore Zuccato, Sara Castiglioni, Roberto Fanelli, Giuseppe Reitano, Renzo Bagnati, Chiara Chiabrando, Francesco Pomati, Carlo Rossetti, Davide Calamari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background, Aim and Scope. Environmental contamination by pharmaceuticals is an emerging issue. Until recently, information on medicinal substances released into the environment was scant, but several studies have now been published. Data are, however, usually scattered and a systematic approach to this subject is generally lacking. Moreover, because of differences in the prevalence of diseases, treatment habits and options, or simply for market reasons, the pollution profile can differ significantly in different countries. The aim of this work is to review the papers dealing with environmental contamination by pharmaceuticals in Italy, with the aim of providing a comprehensive view on a national scale. Methods. Papers related to environmental contamination by pharmaceuticals in Italy were reviewed, in order to offer a comprehensive view of this subject. Topics included analysis, occurrence, monitoring, modelling, treatment, control of the emissions, and ecotoxicological effects of pharmaceuticals in the environment. Results and Conclusion. The literature suggests that pharmaceuticals are widespread contaminants, entering the environment from a myriad of scattered points. Patients, in case of drugs for human use, or animals for veterinary drugs, are the main sources of contamination. Pharmaceuticals can be ranked according to environmental loads, predicted by multiplying sales figures by the rate of metabolism in man or animals. Priority pharmaceuticals, i.e. the molecules of concern for the environment, can be measured in waste and surface water by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, and the loads detected are generally comparable to the predicted ones. Pharmaceuticals are designed to stimulate a response in humans and animals at low doses, with a very specific target, so the implications for human health and the environment need to be assessed. In vitro and in vivo studies suggest that pharmaceutical principles, taken singularly or in combinations, and concentrations close to those detected in the environment, may have ecotoxicological effects. The sewage system is an important point in the control of contamination, but sewage treatment plants are not able efficiently to abate a substantial part of water-borne pharmaceuticals. Several variables play a role, however, in the processes of waste water treatment, and could be specifically adjusted to improve the efficiency of drug abatement, mitigating the potential environmental hazards. Recommendation and Perspective. Pharmaceuticals in the environment are becoming a subject of global concern, with potential environmental consequences. Further knowledge of the causes, occurrence and effects of drugs as environmental pollutants is necessary for a better understanding of this ecological issue, as well as to improve abatement strategies, and to mitigate subtle environmental consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-21
Number of pages7
JournalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2006


  • Analysis
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Environment
  • Italy
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Sewage treatment plant
  • Surface water
  • Waste water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Pollution


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